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TrackNotes: Lost Faith In A Ruined Sport

I've put a lot of faith into Thoroughbred horse racing.

Faith, by it's very nature, includes, even requires at times, at least some blindness. The acceptance of shortcomings, denial of imperfections. Blinkers, if you will.

I've used a lot of superlatives to describe the sport and nature of horse racing; its richest of histories, unparalleled pageantry, unsurpassed power and speed.

But like a kid with only one candy store in town, when the candyman keeps pushing you away with the likes of surly service, inconsistent or sometimes non-existent access, and even poisoned gumdrops, you get the hint to develop a taste for something else.

Racing's apathy for its fans and itself was already evident to anyone who pays attention, but after the debacle of the 2011 Breeders' Cup, audacious enough to call itself the "World Championships," the blinkers have fallen off. The faith is lost.

It could easily begin and end with the running of the BC Mile, the long-awaited race in which Goldikova would attempt to win her fourth straight. But there's more; there's always more.

The Mile could have been the equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's 56 games or even more, because today, horses rarely run long enough to achieve such things.

Instead, we got the perfect storm of ineptitude, indifference, laziness and pure outrage.

Saving ground on the hedge most of the way around, Goldikova, the one horse, found herself bottled up on the last turn coming into the stretch. As the horses spun out of the turn, Goldikova needed to get outside to find a hole, so Olivier Peslier took her out, one lane at a time.

As quick as she is, Goldikova went for a hole which closed up just as her head got in it; she held back and then went out one more lane to get back into another hole. Trouble was, in doing so she sharply cut off Courageous Cat, who had to pull up suddenly and then himself bumped Byword out of the way.

Court Vision held on for a photo finish over Turallure, paying an astounding $131.00 to win. Goldikova, with too much to do and her age catching up with her, came in another half-length back in third. Courageous Cat, the fourth betting choice, finished last.

Announcers going crazy, OBJECTION flashed on the results board. The stewards had most definitely missed the near pileup, but Courageous Cat's jockey, Pat Valenzuela, filed the protest. In both the overhead and head-on shot, it was clear Goldikova's bull move caused problems for at least two other horses, probably three.

The next TV shot was from the video-only camera installed in the stewards' booth as two chrome domes and a bureaucrat-type gazed at the five video monitors, looking just like what they turned out to be: slack-jawed do-nothings preparing to do just that - nothing.

As sure as Goldikova should have been disqualified to last behind the horse she impeded, your win odds that they wouldn't do anything - despite ESPN analyst Jerry Bailey's assurances they would do the right thing - were pretty damn good. And that's what they did. They let the order of finish stand.

I was in disbelief, I didn't care if it was Goldikova. Jerry Bailey was incredulous and seemingly livid.

"Somehow, the stewards thought differently than the rest of the human race," wrote ESPN.com racing columnist Bill Finley. "Goldikova stayed up, with steward John Veitch telling reporters that Byword was equally at fault and it was a case of two horses going for the same hole at the same time."

This is the same John Veitch who has still not been held accountable for one of the most egregious breakdowns of wagering integrity and indifference of a horse's welfare in recent memory with last year's Life At Ten episode.

Did they give Goldikova a mulligan because of her stature in the Breeders' Cup? Even though the incident happened fairly far up the track, did they arbitrarily decide that none of the other horses had any chance to finish better than Goldikova (this happens all the time)? Did they figure well, it happened, nothing we can do about it now?

What if you had Courageous Cat in anything from a win to a superfecta, as many bettors undoubtedly did? I had him in the mix. What if you had Gio Ponti, who finished fourth, in the trifecta?

But here comes the Joe Frazier body shot.

As pointed out by a Paulick Report commenter, one of the video monitors in the stewards room was tuned to the Kentucky-Ole Miss football game!

WHAT?!

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Having DVR'd the races, I took a look, in beautiful high definition, and there it was. With a video array of two screens above three more screens, the lower right screen was, in fact, tuned to the football game! There was a fist-pumping yahoo kid in the stands screaming at the camera, the shot then pulling away to give us the panorama of the football stadium. Disturbingly, as the sideline camera showed the players of both teams coming to the line of scrimmage, it even appeared as if one of the stewards was watching the game instead of reviewing footage of the disputed race.

Perched high above the race track in their glass booth, the perspective showed the mighty twin spires of the alleged cathedral of horse racing as big as battleships close up. Surely these stewards knew where they were, right?

I hadn't noticed Saturday, and if Jerry Bailey, while assuring us this was a DQ-able offense, did notice it he didn't say anything. I don't think he did.

It was wrong on dozens of levels. They're called stewards, by definition charged with caring for the integrity of the competition, the quality of effort and the cleanest of results. These guys could very well have found themselves in the position of ruling a jockey did not give "full effort" when they themselves did not put forth their own full effort in meeting their responsibilities on one of the biggest days of racing on the planet.

As I said, they did not order an inquiry in the race, Pat Valenzuela raised the objection, which was his duty to the integrity of the race. How do we know the stewards were even watching the race as it ran? Perhaps the Wildcats were first-and-goal.

If the stewards are giving only 80 percent of their attention to the most important races of the year, why should I give them 100 percent of my wagering money? And why is it in Kentucky that we have two major race controversies in two consecutive years?

Other transgressions were minor in comparison but contribute to the disappointment.

* We had the stewards and veterinarians, unconvincing and in classic overcompensation after their failure with Life At Ten last year, scratching Shotgun Gulch from the Filly and Mare Sprint on Friday because "she didn't look good in the left foreleg." If it was a legitimate scratch, it sure didn't feel like it. It felt smarmy, vindictive.

* In the unpreparedness-leads-to-problems department, Announce was scratched from the Filly and Mare Turf after she got loose from her lead pony, bolted down the track and then, while trying to get her bearings, spun around and smacked her hindquarter into the horse ambulance sitting trackside. Requiring stitches, it was an automatic scratch and her connections were grateful.

But it also pointed out the seeming failure of race officials to address the issue of European horses who don't use lead ponies to get to their starting gates. Like any athlete, these horses are creatures of habit and routine, and introducing another animal of similar or bigger size to shadow them to the gate can get disquieting. How much do you want to bet that there was no discussion between officials and these horses' connections about either schooling with the ponies beforehand or foregoing them altogether? It was an obvious problem with the Euros all weekend.

* The track never dried out. After rain Thursday that ended early Friday morning, races Friday and Saturday were run in ideal weather conditions. Okay, so they got a lot of rain and Friday races might see some effect of that. But after the cliched "Yahhhp, this track will dry out in no time; it's very high tech" from the TVG hosts Thursday night and Friday morning, we saw a track that was basically sealed as the Friday BC races began. Fine, seal the track if you have to. But why doesn't it just dry better than that?

Daily Racing Form's Dan Illman reported that the track was sealed all the way up until the first Breeders' Cup race Saturday, which was the third race on Saturday's full card. Sealing means that the track is rolled smooth so that any rain or excess water rolls off of it instead turning to soup or washing away.

Saturday dawned under perfect blue skies, but the track stayed wet, with glistening puddles, throughout the day, and it didn't look like they would or could do anything about it. As far as I know, it didn't rain in the overnight hours Friday; why seal the track instead of let it get air and dry out?

It made for a cuppy dirt track, as described by one jockey, which means hoof prints or "dents" in the track did not easily come out. Another called it sticky. I noticed in several races that the main running lanes were full of hoof prints and not raked out before the start of another race. Like running on flypaper. The dirt track was abominable, the turf course better. If somebody out there has an explanation, I'd love to hear it, because once again, fans were left in the dark during the races.

I believe the track most definitely did not allow these horses to give representative accountings of themselves. I think it was a definite factor in why the better horses in the Classic such as Havre de Grace, Flat Out, So You Think, To Honor and Serve and Stay Thirsty all had such difficult trips. One or two of those? Sure, but not all of them.

* This one goes on an egotistical owner and a pliant trainer, not the Breeders' Cup management, but the health of a horse was once again a factor and a possible detriment to the fans.

First thing this Monday morning, it was announced that Uncle Mo was retired from racing. Tested after the Classic, a liver enzyme was apparently elevated, an indicator of the disease that knocked him out of the Kentucky Derby and sidelined him for weeks.

Going off as the close fourth betting favorite, Mo was a spirited participant in the pace, even led for a few moments, looking like a million bucks. Coming into the stretch, he faded, like most knew he would, and finished tenth.

Now, the amount Uncle Mo took in wagering for this race was ridiculous. While talented, he didn't have the foundation or the breeding to even be in this race. While the health of the sport might have benefited from a more logical placing and also gotten Uncle Mo a win in the Dirt Mile, the fans lost again as blowhard, self-centered owner Mike Repole (where was the gentle "horseman," trainer Todd Pletcher, in all of this?) made this a caveat emptor. Think there's any chance the newbies who lost their money on an overhyped and misplaced Mo will be back?

But what health was he in? Were his enzymes elevated coming into the race, and if they were, how could his medical people and Pletcher not know? Was he 100 percent? Once again, we'll never know.

Is any or all of this is overreaction? Horseplayers work hard to study trends, find familiarity with a horse and a race. A $5,000 claimer in the Kentucky Derby - or Uncle Mo in the Breeders' Cup Classic - raises eyebrows, gets your attention, is illogical. You know it's not right. And apparently, seeing college football on a screen inside a screen is also not right and enough to put me over the brink.

After all these years of witnessing lackadaisical disregard for betting integrity; the introduction of synthetic surfaces for all the wrong reasons, including PR, track maintenance laziness and taking care of cronies like a Cicero town lord; childish and greedy bickering over simulcast signals that leaves me without tracks I want to see; and track and OTB management that offer up bad food, bad technology and surly bet tellers without even throwing out as much as a free-admission bone, you start to see a trend. Not tough to handicap that.

I see trainers, even the "horse whisperers," who juggle medications, legal and otherwise, to the point where their horses may never achieve their true peaks. I see a sport called racing that is so perverted, it's more profitable to not race! Depriving the fans of any affiliation to a star horse any sophomore marketing major could tell you is so important to any brand or product.

I see a Richard L. Duchossois banging with the faceless, dispassionate gang suits of Churchill Downs Inc., and working tirelessly to crush Illinois racing under his heel, pimping his gorgeous facility for his own aggrandizement rather than seek to nurse Illinois racing back to health.

I see the bible of racing, the Daily Racing Form, profit and profit - and never advocate.

And I see three featherbedded, arrogant racing stewards, on one of the most important days of their professional lives, watching a college football game.

For a sport that depends more than any other on the direct financial commitment of its fans, its partners, where the good graces of the horseplayers should be paramount, racing puts its fans last like no other. If the fiefdoms of racing such as Kentucky and Churchill Downs cannot ensure complete dedication and effort to maintaining the integrity of the wager, then I've got news: the sport's nothing. We had Goldikova this year, Life At Ten last year, and even now issues pertinent to the Pick Six Scandal of 2002 are still unresolved. How long do I put up with that?

How long must I take my money, with upwards of 30 percent knowingly skimmed, to the window, at the track literally or online figuratively, and get treated like shit before I walk away from the ball peen? How much more enthusiasm, or faith, must I invest knowing the overseers of the game would much rather protect and profit from the engineered chaos of American Thoroughbred horse racing than do the things its fans surely know and often ask for to save the game?

I'll never forsake the jockeys or the horses themselves, for they are the true heart and soul of the sport. And horseplayers are the salt of the earth.

But to those who hold the game in their care: Maybe college football is good for something.

Call me when they get it together, or hold the funeral. Whichever comes first.

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Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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